Friday, November 18, 2011
Review - Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein
Short review: Hardball politics result in a lifelong deception of epic magnitude.
Out of work actor
A political kidnapping
Full review: After the debacle of the 1955 Hugo Award being handed out to They'd Rather Be Right, the next year the ship was righted and in 1956 the award was handed out to Heinlein's Double Star, a work of political science fiction featuring a kidnapped politician, an actor pressed into service, and a lot of discussion about the dirty business of parliamentary politics.
The story is fairly straightforward. Lorenzo Smythe, an out of work actor is approached by a spacer named Dak in a bar with what he thinks is a routine proposition for work. When he goes to meet his contact, he finds himself involved in a high stakes game of political intrigue in which the participants are willing to play to the death. Due to the exigencies of culture and politics, John Bonforte, the leader of the Empire's loyal parliamentary opposition, must appear at a specific event or his political career will be ruined and discord possibly resulting in substantial loss of life will ensue. Knowing this, and seeking to derail his political faction, unknown forced have kidnapped Bonforte. Due to the similarities in appearance between Bonforte and himself, Smythe finds himself part of a plan to replace Bonforte with a double to fill in for the event and stave off political disaster, with Smythe in the role as Bonforte's double. Soon one event becomes two, and as the story progresses circumstances seem to conspire to keep him in the role of Bonforte for longer and longer periods, until finally Smythe ceases to exist and all that is left of the man formerly known as Smythe is a reborn Bonforte.
Double Star is quite brief - my copy only runs to 128 pages. But in that handful of pages, Heinlein is able to describe a Solar system spanning empire, two alien races (although one is described in a very cursory manner), an entire political system, all in addition to the specific details that make up the plot of the novel. Heinlein accomplishes this, as he does in many of his novels, by mostly eschewing explanation until absolutely necessary. When a Martian shows up early in the book with a "life-wand", Heinlein doesn't stop to explain what a life-wand is, or what it can do. He just has the characters react to it as an element of their world and trusts the reader to pick up what it is from context. By doing this throughout the book, Heinlein is able to move the story along at a rapid clip and avoid getting bogged down while characters spend time doing the equivalent of explaining to one another how a combustion engine works.
One interesting thing about the story is that there's not a whole lot to it that really had to be science fiction. The particular psychology of the Martians is a plot point, but that element could have been transferred to a non-science fictional one without too much difficulty. Just about everything else about the book could have easily been moved to a contemporary political thriller without any substantial effort. Mostly the book is an excuse to talk about politics and the psychology of campaigning and governing. By using Lorenzo Smythe as his lens into the story, who is both a capable actor and student of how to influence human emotion as well as a political neophyte, Heinlein is able to introduce the reader to his take on the political process one step at a time. And while one might not agree with Heinlein's take on politics, he does lay out his positions and the reasoning behind them clearly (including his explanation for why having a Constitutional monarchy can be justified).
The only real weakness the book has is that it was written in the 1950s, and it shows. Despite imagining a government that covers Earth, the Moon, Venus, Mars, and beyond, Heinlein, like most other writers of his era, completely failed to anticipate the advances in computing that the next few decades would bring. As a result, he imagines people calculating election result probabilities with slide rules, vast archive vaults full of millions of rolls of tape, and a system for keeping track of other people comprised of piles of manila folders stuffed with typewritten sheets of data - all of which make the book feel very dated. The typically sexist attitudes of the 1950s also poke through - Penny, the one female character in the book, is Bonfort's secretary (and consequently, Lorenzo's secretary) who we later learn is both highly educated and a member of the Imperial parliament. But in Bonfort's office she is only qualified to serve as a secretary who is hopelessly smitten in-love with her boss. I suppose it is somewhat progressive that Penny is a member of parliament at all, but then again, the FDR administration had a female cabinet secretary already, so one might consider Penny's position to be par for the course at the time. In addition, several of the other member's of Bonfort's staff, who are all male, are also members of parliament (and some, quite pointedly, are not), so Penny holding a mundane staff position while serving in the government is not unique to her.
From a certain perspective it seems somewhat odd that a book with so little science fiction in its plot would win the Hugo award. On the other hand, political science fiction is one of Heinlein's most common topics, so from that perspective it seems fitting that this was the first of his four best novel Hugo's was for Double Star. Although elements of the book are dated, the novel still holds up as a fine example of Heinlein's better work, and is well worth reading.
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